Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, Pepperdine University School of Public Policy

The Great Man theory of history dictates that without the crucial involvement and thinking of particular men and women, life as we know it would be different – events as we know them would have resolved in a different way.

It is not too much to say that there would be no Davenport Institute for Public Engagement without Steve Weiner, and we mourn his passing from stomach cancer on April 21st. Steve was not just a great man – even more, he was a good man.

I first met Steve about seven years ago. Then, I was a graying grad policy student at Pepperdine, and he was the co-chair of a bi-partisan organization called Common Sense California (CSC). I was invited to one of their board meetings by one of my professors – David Davenport.

I learned from those first few encounters what a “social entrepreneur” was…years before the term became fashionable. Here was a man in retirement, giving himself selflessly to the creation of organizations and the mentoring of leaders on issues ranging from public engagement to community college reform (see this memorial from Michele Siqueiros at the Campaign for College Opportunity). I had never met someone whose life’s passion was not only bettering the lives of others, but who was also willing to put in the hard (and risky) work of building the necessary civic infrastructure towards these efforts.

When I signed on as Common Sense California’s first executive director in 2007, I was welcomed by Steve with a big hug at my first board meeting in San Francisco. Steve reminded me that he was a “New Deal Democrat”, and knowing I was more of a “Reagan Republican”, cautioned me to remember that CSC was a bipartisan organization, and to not only be open to, but to seek out ideas and relationships with those I may disagree with. This was the first of thousands of pieces of wise counsel.

In the midst of all of my major decisions at Common Sense California – from the development of our grant program to the transition to Pepperdine and the creation of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement – Steve was integral in not only providing invaluable advice, but also introducing me to others who have become so important to our work. His “civic rolodex” was incredible!

I’ll never forget that first meeting Steve set up with Ed Everett at Ed’s (then) city manager’s office in Redwood City. From that conversation in late 2007, Ed has become a driving force in our training and consulting programs, and is our Sr. Fellow of Civic Engagement Practice. Steve introduced me to Dave Smith who joined the CSC board several years ago, and is now our Sr. Fellow, National Civic Engagement (and is now at the National Center for Service and Innovative Leadership/Presidio). He introduced me to Greg Greenway – then heading up a project called “Threshold 2008” in San Mateo County. With a background in participatory planning, Greg has consulted on several projects for us. From municipal leaders to non-profit heads to foundation directors – he knew (and was loved by) everyone!

Saying he was a “mentor”, though, does not really describe my relationship with Steve. It started out that way to be sure, but with life comes trials, and Steve was one to ask the uneasy question and offer compassion. When my wife was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, Steve would begin every phone call and in-person conversation with, “now first things first: how’s Mrs. Peterson?” This was not a passing effort. He did this for five years.

Steve always knew how to keep the “first things first”, and for this and his role in my life, and in the “life” of the Davenport Institute, I will be eternally grateful. May the Institute’s ongoing work and the lives he touched (like mine) be worthy of his example.